This year flew by, and before you know it 2022 will be in full swing. But before we’re toasting our champagne glasses, let’s take a look at ten important changes to Texas’ criminal laws from this year’s legislative session. Note that this list is not comprehensive, many other significant laws took effect, which can be found here.
Blood Specimens in DWI Cases
House Bill 558 requires any driver that seriously injures or kills another person to automatically have their blood drawn. This law stems from the death of Katie Palmer, a Denison school teacher, who was hit and killed by Cory Foster in April 2020. At the accident scene, the trooper noted the odor of alcohol on Foster’s breath, but his blood was never tested. Later, Foster was no-billed by the grand jury. Although deemed as a win by many, this legislation will most likely result in a significant number of Fourth Amendment violations and a guarantee of extensive litigation in Texas’ trial and appellate courts.
Bo’s Law: Police Body Cameras
House Bill 929 is also known as the “Botham Jean Act,” named after a man who was shot and killed in his apartment by Amber Guyger, an off-duty police officer who mistook Jean for a burglar. While there are some exceptions, the new law prohibits peace officers from disarming their body cameras during the course of an investigation for which they are involved.
Previously, Texas law did not distinguish between “prostitution” and “solicitation of prostitution.” Prostitutes and “Johns” both faced a misdemeanor charge and were punished equally. However, House Bill 1540 now makes solicitation of prostitution a state jail felony. This means that “Johns” face harsher punishment than the person offering sexual services. A state jail felony is punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,000 fine. HB 1540 is part of sweeping legislation aimed at combating human trafficking. Most notably, the bill makes human trafficking a first-degree felony if the actor recruited, enticed or obtained the victim from a shelter or center for runaways, homeless, and foster children, among others.
More Texans can now use medical marijuana under House Bill 1535. This Bill expands Texas’ Compassionate Use Program and provides access to marijuana for those suffering certain conditions such as cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Drug Overdose Defense
House Bill 1694, also known as the Jessica Sosa Act, provides a defense to prosecution for people who call 911 to help a person who overdosed, even if they have a certain amount of drugs on them. The law is a defense to certain drug offenses if three things are met:
1. They are the first to call 911.
2. They remain on scene until first responders arrive.
3. They cooperate with medics and law enforcement.
This law is said to help combat fatal drug overdoses, which have increased by more than 40 percent since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.
License Suspensions for Drugs
Senate Bill 181 revises the law that automatically suspends a person’s driver’s license for 180 days following a drug conviction. For misdemeanor convictions, the bill specifies that a $100 fine be imposed in lieu of an automatic suspension. Yet, the bill still provides for an automatic 90 day driver’s license suspension if convicted of a felony drug offense, or a subsequent misdemeanor drug offense within 36 months.
Fentanyl Penalty Group
Senate Bill 768 puts fentanyl in a new category, Penalty Group 1-B, and increases the penalties for people convicted of manufacturing or delivering fentanyl. The penalties are:
- Less than one gram—state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in state jail and a maximum $10,000 fine.
- 1-4 grams—second degree felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
- 4-200 grams—10 years up to life in prision and a maximum $20,000 fine.
- 200-400 grams—15 years to life in prison and a maximum $200,000 fine.
- 400 grams +—20 years to life in prison and a maximum $500,000 fine.
The law also specifies that anyone convicted of the new offense for an amount more than four grams is not eligible for probation or deferred adjudication.
Crimes Against Public Servants
Under House Bill 624, anyone who commits an offense against a public servant or against a member of the public servant’s household or family now faces increased punishment. The punishment is increases one level; thus, a Class A misdemeanor is now a state jail felony. First-degree felonies are not increased.
Continuous Sexual Abuse
House Bill 375 provides that continuous sexual abuse of a young child is now extended to include disabled individuals of any age. This offense is a first-degree felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison with no possibility for parole.
Vehicles that are used in street racing offenses are now subject to seizure and civil asset forfeiture under House Bill 2315. The Street Racing Bill allows law enforcement to seize and forfeit vehicles if the racer is a repeat offender, driving under the influence, has an open alcohol container, or causes injury or death. This bill is part of the legislature’s efforts to deter dangerous street racing.